Will second time be the charm for anti-PPP alliance?

Its leaders take pride in the fact that the GDA is among the first electoral blocs to stay intact through a second election, but it is still lagging far behind its main opponent, the PPP, in terms of electioneering
Published January 18, 2024

Along the Indus and National Highways, extending from Matiari to the northern regions of Sindh, travellers are greeted by the captivating sight of mustard flowers in full bloom. Amid this verdant backdrop, Sindh’s political parties are gearing up for the 12th general elections, scheduled for February 8, 2024.

In Pakistan’s second-most populous province, the electoral scene is set for a showdown among major political forces: the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), and the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), among others.

Given its historic dominance in the area, PPP is the one expected to perform strongly in constituencies in the agricultural belt of Sindh.

Outside of Karachi, the contest is between with several parties, including the GDA, PML-N, JUI-F, and PPP. The Khairpur-based Pir Pagara-led GDA, established in 2017, is a coalition of several parties and influential figures united by a single goal: to upend the PPP’s dominance in Sindh. The alliance is set to try its luck again on Feb 8, fuelled by what its leadership describes as “new vigour”.

The history of alliances formed to counter the PPP in Sindh dates back to the party’s founding by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, be it the nine-party Pakistan National Alliance formed during his era, the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) formed to counter Benazir Bhutto in the 1980s, the Sindh Democratic Alliance (SDA) in 2002 during Musharraf’s regime, or an unregistered ten-party alliance in 2013 and now the GDA.

The alliance expands

The GDA, broadening its coalition, has now allied with the religious right-wing JUI-F and incorporated the ultranationalist Sindh United Party (SUP) — led by G.M. Syed’s grandson Syed Jalal Shah, into its fold. It also collaborates with the PML-N and MQM, recognising the futility of a solo fight against the PPP.

 Syed Jalal Shah.
Syed Jalal Shah.

SUP joined the GDA in 2023 to bolster its electoral chances in the constituencies of Asif Zardari in Benazirabad and Murad Ali Shah in Jamshoro, despite its ideological disagreements with other component parties in the alliance. Ahead of the 2013 polls, the SUP had signed a seven-point agreement with Nawaz Sharif on Sindh’s core issues, only to face subsequent disappointment.

Former Sindh CM Liaquat Jatoi joined the GDA after leaving PTI in the wake of the May 9 riots. Jatoi had served as CM in the PML-N government, formed after the 1997 elections, while Jalal was the deputy speaker of the Sindh Assembly in an MQM-led coalition. Jatoi parted ways with the party following the imposition of governor’s rule in Sindh after the assassination of Hakim Said.

Former CM Arbab Ghulam Rahim from Tharparkar and Mohammad Khan Junejo, son of the late Shahnawaz Junejo from Sanghar, are notable GDA members challenging the PPP’s stronghold. The alliance also includes former senator Dr Rahila Magsi from Tando Allahyar; and former bureaucrat Bashir Memon, appointed president of PML-N Sindh by Nawaz Sharif. Dr Ibrahim Jatoi from Shikarpur, meanwhile, has joined the JUI-F.

 Liaiquat Ali Jatoi.
Liaiquat Ali Jatoi.

Sindh United Party (SUP) President Zain Shah acknowledges that their engagement with GDA is primarily an electoral strategy. “Nationalist parties don’t have a significant vote bank, and the alliance’s component parties have divergent ideologies that the SUP does not share,” he admits. But Shah criticises the PPP for neglecting Sindh’s interests in several areas, including the influx of outsiders, demographic threats, corporate farming land allocations, and the repatriation of immigrants.

The SUP aims to advocate for Sindh’s cause through the parliamentary front, as Shah believes parties often fail to represent Sindh’s issues once in the assemblies. “We need to speak for our watan [homeland] in elected houses; otherwise, our efforts within the nationalist circle will achieve nothing,” he asserts.

PPP scorecard

Except for the 2002 elections held under Gen Musharraf, the PPP has consistently formed governments in Sindh. In 2002, the PPP secured 49 direct and 14 reserved seats the in Sindh Assembly, falling short of a majority. A coalition government comprising MQM, National Alliance/PML-Q, PML-Functional and independents, was formed.

The 2008 elections, following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007, saw the PPP win around 90 PA seats, enabling it to form a government in Sindh alongside its administration at the Centre and a coalition government in Balochistan. The National Alliance/PML-Q, which had previously denied the PPP a majority, was reduced to a mere eight general seats, while the MQM’s tally in the Sindh Assembly improved from 43 in 2002 to 50 in 2008.

Since then, the PPP is the one that has formed governments in Sindh, winning 73 direct and 21 reserved seats (94 in total) in 2013, with the MQM maintaining its 50-seat share and the PML-F holding onto its six direct seats.

In the 2018 elections, the PPP increased its tally to 77 direct (i.e. around 60pc of the house) and 22 reserved seats, totalling 99. The MQM suffered a setback, while the PTI made significant inroads in traditional MQM strongholds, securing 30 seats (23 direct and seven reserved). Muttahida was left with 21 seats (16 direct and the rest reserved) in the 168-seat provincial assembly.

According to the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), the PPP captured 38 per cent of the votes in Sindh in 2018 (3,853,904 votes), a significant increase from the 33pc (3,293,330 votes) in 2013. By contrast, in 2018, the GDA had managed to secure 15pc of registered votes (1,514,775) in the province.

But GDA secretary-general Dr Safdar Abbasi questions the transparency of the last polls in Sindh. “If the central elections were selective, do you think those in Sindh were transparent?” he asks, suggesting that the PPP’s dominance in Sindh mirrored the PTI’s at the Centre. “The PPP’s strength mainly comes from 10-12 districts, which is where the GDA is focusing its efforts,” he notes, though he refrains from predicting the number of seats the GDA might win on February 8.

 Safdar Ali Abbasi.
Safdar Ali Abbasi.

Abbasi, a leader of PPP-Workers — a breakaway faction of the PPP — and husband of Nahid Khan, Benazir Bhutto’s once-confidant, highlights his nephew Moazzam Abbasi’s victory over PPP candidate Nida Khuhro in the last election. He takes pride in the fact that the GDA was the first alliance to remain intact through a second general election.

GDA scorecard

Content with the GDA’s performance in 2018, which won 11 direct seats in the Sindh Assembly and two in the National Assembly, Abbasi is optimistic about further progress.

“We are gradually but surely breaking the system of corruption and bureaucracy entrenched for 15 years,” he asserts. He supports the MQM’s call for devolution of powers to local governments and questions why the Sindh government has not formed a Provincial Finance Commission (PFC) in the last 15 years.

In the previous elections, the alliance narrowly lost four seats by margins as low as 3,000 to 900 votes. Dr Fehmida Mirza won a National Assembly constituency, but lost PS-73 to the PPP by just 915 votes. In Larkana, Adil Unnar was defeated by 2,000 votes on PS-13; in Ghotki, Ali Gohar Mahar won one seat but lost PS-19 by 3,000 votes; and Rozi Khan was defeated on PS-35 Naushahro Feroz by a similar margin.

The GDA secured 45pc, 44.46pc, 41.99pc, and 36.44pc of the registered votes in these constituencies, respectively. Two of its MNAs, Ghous Bux Mahar (Shikarpur) and Dr Mirza (Badin), received 45.82pc and 46.94pc of the vote, respectively.

The GDA also performed well in other constituencies, securing substantial margins ranging from 39.48pc to 60.29pc in various districts. However, the alliance suffered a setback prior to the election announcement when its MNA from Shikarpur Ghous Bux Mahar and MPA from Ghotki Ali Gohar Mahar defected to the PPP. Now, the GDA aims to consolidate its position through seat adjustments with the JUI-F, MQM, and PML-N.

Recent delimitations have largely benefitted the PPP, but placed it at a disadvantage on a few seats. For example, Sanghar, where the party had won all three National Assembly seats last time, now only has two NA constituencies due to redistricting. The PPP, however, was encouraged by the changes in Hyderabad’s Latifabad provincial seat won in 2018 by Jabbar Khan, which now appear to favour him against the unified MQM.

Credible threat to PPP dominance?

The PPP, apparently accustomed to dealing with such alliances, remains focused on its national campaign. Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari constantly attacks the Sharifs in campaign speeches, but rarely mentions the GDA.

The party also waxes lyrical about achievements such as the 18th Amendment, a new formula for the NFC Award that translates into impressive federal revenue receipts annually in Sindh, improved health facilities like NICVD, and provincial autonomy.

The party takes any critique of the 18th Amendment to heart, as was evident from the reaction from party leaders to comments by PML-N’s Ahsan Iqbal and MQM regarding the need for “improvement” in the amendment for a clearer definition of local governments’ powers.

Perhaps that’s why PPP Sindh chief Nisar Khuhro also asks whether the GDA, JUI-F, and JI agree with MQM and PML-N’s stance on creating administrative units in Sindh and altering the 18th Amendment. “Does the GDA align with these parties’ views, or does it intend to challenge provincial autonomy?” Khuhro asks, rhetorically.

When the PPP introduced a local government law supporting the MQM’s proposal for multiple metropolitan corporations in cities that were divisional headquarters, the move angered nationalists, intellectuals, and opposition parties.

The PML-F, led by Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi, initiated a ten-party alliance which, despite a strong start coupled with some spiritual colour, had little impact in the 2013 polls. The PPP eventually triumphed in the Sindh Assembly elections without major complications and PML-F’s men like Imtiaz Sheikh and late Jam Madad parted company to join the ruling PPP.

“PPP seems poised for an easy victory in the [Feb 8] polls,” suggests Prof Inam Shaikh, a Larkana-born intellectual. He notes that Sindh operates under a ‘Machiavellian model’ of governance.

According to Inam, the PPP excels in striking advantageous deals with the establishment, which prefers dealing with a single entity. “For instance, if the establishment needs 40,000 acres for corporate farming, the PPP offers 80,000 acres,” he remarks, referencing the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) formed under the PPP-inclusive PDM government.

Inam observes that the PPP bypasses the arduous task of securing the popular vote by working through people at the Union Council (UC) level, a strategy differing from the late Bhutto’s approach. “UC representatives act as watchmen for ministers, advisers, and parliamentarians, ensuring the strength of the vote,” he explains.

With the district administration under control and ample funds available, he questions the necessity of worry for the PPP. However, he criticises the state of the public health sector, alleging corruption. Despite these issues, he believes the PPP will comfortably win in most constituencies.

Internal contradictions

GDA’s collaboration with parties of varying ideologies, meanwhile, doesn’t go down well with rights activists like Amar Sindhu, a teacher at Sindh University and an organiser of the annual Ayaz Melo, who remains concerned over the inclusion of right-wingers like the JUI-F – led by Rashid Soomro in Sindh – in a bid to unify the anti-PPP vote, possibly with the establishment’s support.

She notes with surprise that Rashid’s father, the late Khalid Soomro, was known for both his religious and nationalist views when it came to Sindh’s issues, but his son is now taking a different position.

 Rahila Magsi.
Rahila Magsi.

“This strategy is alarming and contradicts Sindh’s political culture,” she says. She agrees that while PPP may not excel in governance — a subjective point in her view — but issues such as the NFC Award and 18th Amendment are sufficient enough to sway voters who feel ‘protected’ under the PPP.

Zulfikar Halepoto, who has worked with both the PPP and PTI, feels that “given the lack of a better alternative to represent them at both federal and provincial levels, Sindhis view PPP as lesser evil when compare with other political options”. And that’s why, he agrees with Inam on the PPP’s prospects in polls.

“Asif Zardari takes a no-risk approach and makes adjustments to include everyone. In Sindh, there simply isn’t a viable alternative,” he explains. This, he believes, is why opposition figures like the Mahars have once again returned to the PPP fold.

He regards alliances like the GDA as ineffective or only part-time players. “Sindh needs committed, full-time politicians. Nationalists, while protecting their interests, often exhibit contradictions.

For example, why would a nationalist leader who criticises dynastic politics field his sons for national and provincial assembly seats? Doesn’t he have a competent worker to represent the party?“

Drawing a parallel with the nine-party PNA of the late 1970s, author and left-leaning rights activist Harris Khalique notes: “The GDA is an interesting mix of feudal electables and ideologically diverse nationalist leaders”.

Barring any ‘intervention’, Khalique believes the PPP will form the next government in Sindh, and suggests that the time has come for the party to move beyond patronage politics and start delivering on its promises across the region, from Karachi to Kashmore.

Campaign trail

While the party has lofty ideals, they are still trailing the PPP in one important res­pect — electioneering.

At the time of going to print, the GDA had just issued a list of ticket holders after finalising seat adjustments with allies, in the hopes of a better electoral showing this time around.

The PPP, however, already has a head start, having dealt with the award of tickets long ago. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is now addressing multiple events nearly every day and his sister Aseefa is also in the field, while local party leaders have turned up the heat in their respective areas.

Mr Bhutto-Zardari has even unveiled the Awami Muashi Muahida, the closest thing to a manifesto the party has produced so far.

With time running out for launching a full-fledged campaign, will a rare second electoral outing be the charm for GDA to keep itself relevant in the political milieu? That question will only be answered come February 8.